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Review: Imperial Dreams (2016)

Imperial Dreams (2016)

Directed by: Malik Vitthal

Premise: An ex-con (John Boyega) is released from prison and returns to his family in the Watts housing projects in Los Angeles. With his girlfriend in prison and everyone else involved in illegal activity, he attempts to provide for his son and stay out of trouble.  

What Works: An ex-con released from prison and looking for redemption is not an unusual premise for a story but Imperial Dreams approaches that concept in a practical way. The film begins with Bambi, played by John Boyega, returning to the housing projects of Los Angeles and reuniting with his ten year old son Day (Ethan and Justin Coach). Bambi discovers that his son’s life is in disarray. The boy’s mother (Keke Palmer) is in prison while his own mother is an alcoholic. Meanwhile, Bambi’s half-brother (Rotimi) attempts to find the money to pay for college tuition and his Uncle Shrimp (Glenn Plummer) tempts Bambi with a lucrative drug running job. The young ex-con attempts to find a way out of the criminal life but quickly discovers seemingly impossible obstacles. What is extraordinary about Imperial Dreams is the way it dramatizes this young man’s attempt to go straight and how everything and everyone around him is pitched to keep him in his place of poverty and crime. Bambi’s parole requires him to hold a job but there are virtually no employment opportunities where he lives. In order to find work Bambi must have a driver’s license but he cannot get a license without first paying government mandated child support which Bambi cannot pay off because he can’t get a job without a driver’s license. Meanwhile, a pair of local police officers hover in the background and Bambi’s uncle attempts to strong-arm him into the family business. Imperial Dreams presents the struggle between who a man wants to be and what the forces around him expect him to be. Everything in Bambi’s life pushes him toward crime and the film asks whether or not we can defy our environment or if we are all just a product of the forces around us. The film doesn’t answer that explicitly but it does infer that that the solution is somewhere in between. As a movie about the tension between fate and human determination, Imperial Dreams presents its viewers with a scenario that challenges the American myth of the self-made man who can rise above his environment. But it doesn’t absolve the characters of their personal responsibility either and Imperial Dreams is full of complex and flawed characters. John Boyega in particular is terrific in the lead role as is Rotimi as his half-brother and Glenn Plummer as Uncle Shrimp.

What Doesn’t: Imperial Dreams doesn’t quite come to a satisfying conclusion. The picture juggles several antagonists, including rival gang members, a pair of domineering police officers, and Bambi’s own uncle. The body of the story alternates between these different storylines and builds toward a crisis point but when it finally gets there the picture doesn’t tie these subplots together and the final resolution of the uncle storyline is anticlimactic. In its last few minutes Imperial Dreams introduces a new problem, one that’s pretty severe, and then the film ends without satisfactorily resolving it. The point of Imperial Dreams is the ongoing struggle to survive in a society that is not interested in uplifting those in the greatest need. That idea, and the way it plays out through the bulk of the story, points to a dark and downbeat conclusion. The filmmakers lose their nerve and don’t follow through with the implicit suggestion of the rest of the movie. They instead opt for a cautiously optimistic conclusion. The finale of Imperial Dreams is appealing but the filmmakers avoid the more challenging implications of their story in favor of a more commercial conclusion. 

DVD extras: Imperial Dreams is currently available on Netflix.

Bottom Line: Imperial Dreams is an impressive drama. Within a narrow story the movie presents nuanced characters in complex situations and examines provocative questions of identity and the way we regard rehabilitation.

Episode: #660 (August 13, 2017)